The Potomac River in Washington is frozen, though only with a light crust of ice, not like the Charles River in Boston which appears a solid block that one might stomp across all the way to Cambridge, though in the center a soft spot could crack open at any moment. Measuring the solidity of surfaces can be a matter of life and death.
The image of frozen surfaces arose as I was reviewing for a talk the appeals sent on behalf of writers in prison or killed for their work in the past year. Around 90 Rapid Action alerts (RANs) were sent out by PEN International, which tracks the situation of writers worldwide. I’d sent appeals on approximately half of these. I reviewed the risk and judgment of the writers in these countries. Some regimes were relentless; others, more arbitrary. Governments, like China and Iran, appear to be solid authoritarian regimes that brook little dissent, yet beneath the surface and at the edges, writers and others chip away, laying the groundwork for change that might yet crack open their societies.
The suppression of the writer is a barometer for political freedom in a country and can often be a predictor of events to come.
In July, the arrest of Fahem Boukaddous, a journalist sentenced to four years in prison for “harming public order” by covering demonstrations, foreshadowed both the recent suppression and the protests in Tunisia where the government’s crackdown on writers preceded the fall of the regime itself. Boukaddous and seven other writers have now been released.
In May, the arrests of Belarusian writers, including Vladimir Neklyayev, President of Belarus PEN, for “dissemination of false information” foreshadowed the sweeping arrests of writers, activists and opposition leaders during the presidential elections in December when Neklyayev and others were also candidates. It remains to be seen how the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenko will hold, given the widespread charges of a flawed election and unrest in the population.
At the beginning of the year, the Chinese government detained and arrested writers, including Zhao Shiying, Secretary General of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Zhao protested the arrest and sentencing of fellow writer Liu Xiaobo to 11 years for his role in drafting Charter ’08, a document that called for democratic reform in China. The year continued with the detention of Chinese writers supporting Liu and democracy and also the arrests of writers in Tibet and the Uyghur Autonomous Region. If the suppression of writers is inversely proportional to freedom and democratic change in a society, then China remains at the top of the list of frozen governments.
The year also began with writers, journalists and bloggers in prison in Iran, followed by further crackdowns on writers, including Nasrin Sotoudeh. Sotoudeh, a writer and lawyer, was sentenced to 11 years on charges that included: “cooperating with the Association of Human Rights Defenders,” “conspiracy to disturb order,” and “propaganda against the state.” Other charges brought against writers in Iran included “congregation and mutiny with intent to commit crimes against national security,” “insulting the Supreme Leader,” “insulting the President,” and “disruption of public order.” The arrests, imprisonments and executions in Iran may give the appearance of a solid block of state power, but it is a block that may yet crack from the edges and the center as citizens continue to stomp across it.
It is worth remembering the precipitous fall 20 years ago of the Soviet Union as pressure for freedom sent fissures through the system that eventually broke the harsh authoritarian surface. As the world watches the current upheavals in the Middle East, one can track back and note the suppression of writers in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt. The writers and their words are like a heat source that regimes try to trap beneath the surface but instead they soften up the ice.
In the woods outside Minsk, Belarus an Olympic training center sprawls among the snow-capped pine trees. Here athletes, including wrestlers from all over Europe, particularly the former Soviet Union, come to train. These young men—mostly they are men though occasionally women wrestlers train there—exercise, practice and then “go live” several times a day. From this center Olympic medalists emerge. Politics can seem as remote as the camp itself.
This past weekend in Minsk, approximately 20 miles away, as many as 10,000 people protested the outcome of Belarus’ presidential elections. Incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, won the election in a process widely criticized by both official outside observers (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe OSCE) and opposition parties. More than 600 people, including journalists, human rights activists and most of the opposition presidential candidates, were attacked and arrested. Among those arrested was Vladimir Neklyaev, writer and former president of Belarusian PEN, who was severely beaten, hospitalized and then taken away from the hospital to an unknown location, since identified as the Belarus State Security Agency (KGB).
Belarus, which is bounded by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine and Russia, is itself wrestling between the ideologies and political systems of open democracy and authoritarian rule. Belarus has been called Europe’s last dictatorship.
As a new decade arrives and the twentieth anniversary of the breakup of the Soviet Union is observed, Belarus may be one of the telltales to judge the direction history leans. One hopes it will arrive at fair and open competition. In the Olympics it would certainly be grounds for disqualification if an athlete at any point before or after the competition attacked his or her fellow athletes.